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A Great Day in Harlem

Posted by martinteller on December 7, 2013

The “great day” in question was in August, 1958.  Art Kane, an art director working for Esquire, assembled 58 notable musicians in front of a Harlem brownstone to pose for a picture to be featured in an issue dedicated to jazz.  That photograph is now legendary, one of the most treasured snapshots in modern music history, featuring legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk.  In this hour-long documentary, surviving subjects and participants discuss their memories of that day, and the jazz greats that were gathered there.

I am a beginner when it comes to jazz.  If I’m feeling generous to myself, I might say I know slightly more about it than the average guy on the street, but even that might not be true.  Only 10 of the 58 names were familiar to me, and most of those are the heavyweights (I would guess the most obscure is Gerry Mulligan, who I know because of his association with Chet Baker).  I don’t have a discerning ear when it comes to jazz… it all sounds pretty good to me.  And in the wonderful array of old footage collected here, there wasn’t a single performance I could possibly call mediocre.  So I’ll leave it to the jazz experts to decide who in the photograph is deserving of being memorialized and who would be little more than a minor footnote.

But the stories presented here are really enjoyable, and often fascinating.  Monk’s taking an hour to decide what to wear, the observation that all the drummers drifted towards each other, the fact that it was Kane’s first professional photograph.  These guys are having a lot of fun sharing their anecdotes and revisiting the old days.  It’s an easy watch and you don’t have to be a jazz fanatic to be entertained.  It’s just too bad the filmmaking isn’t better.  This was the first film by director Jean Bach, and all that followed was a short (another jazz-related documentary).  I would imagine her involvement was due more to her enthusiasm for the subject rather than any cinematic aspirations.  The interview segments are quite plain, and in an age where even the lowest-budget docs have a certain gloss to them, Bach’s movie looks pretty shabby by comparison, about on the level of a “60 Minutes” segment.

However, the use of archival footage is definitely a delight and what matters most is the content of the interviews.  This film should be appreciated by jazz aficionados and newbies alike, with lots of history and humor to go around.  Rating: Good (78)


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